Dear Prime Minister Starmer, here's how technology can help you transform the UK for the better

Dear Prime Minister Starmer,

Look, I know you have a horrendous in-tray to work through in your new job. The previous incumbent(s) made quite a mess of things. But you – like your predecessors – have made a bit of statement about this whole “science and technology superpower” goal, so I’d like to offer some thoughts, humbly, if I may.

First, and in so many ways perhaps the most important request, is a simple one. If you want an easy quick win, please finally sort out the compensation schemes for the victims of the Post Office scandal. With your legal background, you more than any other prime minister should understand what needs to be done. Get the hopeless leadership of the Post Office out of the loop. Provide financial redress to subpostmasters and seek accountability for those responsible. It will be a statement of intent and a hugely popular move.

More broadly, your manifesto offered largely much of the same when it comes to technology – although your promise to amend planning rules to speed up development of datacentres is innovative and holds much promise. But in many ways, from the perspective of the UK’s digital economy, your initial focus ought to be less about the individual policies, and more about your vision of the 21st century digitally-enabled country the UK can be.

We have a lot of strengths in research, universities, fintech, startups, AI, software development and more – with a lot of smart people, albeit not enough of them. But we have been left behind in the global digital race.

Computer Weekly recently visited China – Shanghai and Shenzen, to be precise. Putting aside the obvious political and social differences, the tech advancement on display is remarkable. Ubiquitous high-speed 5G networks. Drone deliveries. Automated cars. Look too at South Korea and Singapore, where broadband infrastructure offers 1Gbps to the home as routine.

Developments like these are not gimmicks – they are becoming everyday life in the most technologically advanced countries. We are not one of them.

You will be assailed by tech influencers and interested parties – and quite a few purveyors of digital snake oil. They will all do what the tech industry does – tell you that you absolutely must right now without delay introduce the very latest amazing innovations and omigod it’s going to be incredible!

You have shown your willingness to listen. But you have also shown your willingness to take the time to make the right decisions. I urge you to do that here.

Start not from the purveyors of technology – start from the users. Us. People. The digital revolution is changing and will continue to change the way we all live and work dramatically in the coming years. That requires two things.

First, a tech sector capable of delivering – and the tech sector does a pretty decent job of that (with the caveats above). Support the sector, boost the skills and education it needs, offer the right incentives to global tech players to locate their highest-value operations and their brightest people in the UK. I think you will find a high degree of enthusiasm to do so, if those players can see an environment in which they will flourish.

But second, and most importantly, make sure this country is socially and culturally capable of absorbing the impact of these technologies. Technological progress will take care of itself – its human impact needs more care. Look for every opportunity to improve our lives with technology, but look also at every possible unintended consequence of that technology.

What you should not do is, for example, say, “Right, we need to make as much use of AI as possible.” Yes, of course, we want to make as much positive use of AI as possible, but that’s the wrong place to start.

Examine instead every policy and programme your government puts in place and ask, “How can we improve the delivery of this policy, by making better use of technology?”

Make sure your radar is as good as it can be. Look for the real-life use cases of new technologies, including AI, and think how to plug that experience into policy. Government should not be at the bleeding edge, taking risks with tech – but it should be an early adopter, closely following the learning of those at the forefront.

Let me give you a simple example. You’ve promised the building of several new towns. What’s the digital element of that and what can technology bring to make the lives of people who will live in those towns better?

How about planning a datacentre or two in every new town development? The money is there from the private sector. Think of how that will spread digital skills around the country, instead of concentrating it into the traditional tech hotbeds of the south-east and big cities. Plan the 5G networks and the fibre connectivity from the start. Make sure that businesses in those new towns can enjoy the very latest and best in technology infrastructure, support and skills.

You want to revitalise the High Street and help small local businesses. With so many people working from home now – a trend I trust you will not attempt to reverse in the way your predecessors did – how about creating local remote working hubs, maybe in library buildings, where people can work and collaborate and network with each other, finding common problems and solutions. I expect you will find that they’ll end up spending more money with local businesses and retailers – and take a load off public transport thanks to fewer commuting miles.

And to return to an earlier theme, what about the Post Office network? Imagine that vital community resource as a digital hub for public services, banking services, as a physical, highly localised complement to a digital world for those who don’t or can’t engage fully with the online world?

Honestly, I could write pages on the opportunities that exist to support the transformation of the UK for the better – to create opportunity, reduce inequality, generate wealth and happiness – if technology is at the table when policy is being developed, and if tech is used to connect all those policies together into a coordinated whole.

I don’t know Peter Kyle, your new secretary of state for science, innovation and technology. People I know who have talked to him speak well of him – they say he gets it. But you will need more than a department and a tech-savvy minister to be successful. Digital thinking and awareness must be embedded at every level of your administration if you’re to deliver the full benefits – at both a policy level and a service delivery level.

You know how much change has been delivered in the first quarter of this century as a result of technology. Trust me when I say, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The next 10 years – that decade of national renewal you have talked about – will see the social and cultural impact of the digital revolution accelerate even further.

The decisions you make now will determine how successfully the UK will take advantage of that – not only whether we can genuinely consider ourselves to be a science and technology superpower, but also a country that exemplifies how tech can make the lives of all our citizens better.

We have some catching up to do – but it’s not yet too late.

I and everyone in the digital community wish you every success in your new job – we all have a vested interest in your government doing well on so many levels.

Technology can and must play an important part in achieving that – but it has to be led by the needs of the people who will use and benefit from that technology, and not pushed by tech for tech’s sake.

Good luck, prime minister. Give us a call if you want to discuss!

Yours sincerely,

The Computer Weekly team

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